Public Policy Leadership Students Compete in ‘Battle for the Gavel’

Exercise provides real-world experience in navigating public policy challenges

Freshman public policy leadership major Aminata Ba, of Southaven, gives an opening statement at Wednesday’s mock congressional hearing. Photo by Srijita Chattopadhyay/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

OXFORD, Miss. – After weeks of preparation, more than 80 University of Mississippi freshmen public policy leadership majors participated in a mock congressional hearing on campus Wednesday (Nov. 29) to discuss voting reform.

The event simulated a hearing of the United States Senate Committee on Rules and Administration. The students, who came from four Ole Miss public policy leadership classes, engaged in passionate discussion surrounding relevant voting reform topics such as mail-in ballots, gerrymandering, the Electoral College and representation.

Brady Moore, a public policy major from Lovington, Illinois, played Georgia’s secretary of state. As an expert witness, he answered questions from “senators” while explaining the process of Georgia’s voting tactics and the state’s position that in-person voting is a safe and secure way to obtain votes.

“This has all been three or four weeks in the making,” Moore said. “My team has met many, many, many times to prepare. It’s a really good experience and I’ve loved every second of it.

“There’s been a lot of detail planning, working on scripts and just making sure that each statement can be as informative as possible.”

Jody Holland, associate professor of public policy leadership, worked with each of his PPL 101 sections to prepare them for this event. Nicknamed the “Battle of the Gavel,” Holland started the annual exercise three years ago. The event has grown to become the “signature experience” for public policy leadership freshmen, Holland said.

“There are some outcomes that I try to identify when I look at the mock congressional hearing,” he said at the event. “One is to increase the students’ policy knowledge. They have done an amazing job putting together this content and this research. I also want them to be able to enhance their leadership skills.

“They’ve enhanced their delegation abilities, their communication their teamwork, collaboration, negotiation skills … also, the third component is their ability to connect and network. These are skills that students can utilize in the real world.”

The signature experience for Ole Miss public policy leadership freshmen, the annual ‘Battle for the Gavel’ was held Nov. 29. More than 80 students participated in the mock congressional hearing, which focused on voting reform. Photo by Srijita Chattopadhyay/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

The exercise is “meticulously structured” to mirror real-life proceedings on Capitol Hill, Holland said. Students are divided into roles that include senators, expert witnesses and legislative aids. New this year were the additions of chiefs of staff and a communications team who helped promote and live stream the event.

“We’re showing these students the ropes and giving them the opportunity to be leaps and bounds ahead of other students pursuing policy,” he said. “This hearing is a powerful pedagogical tool that equips them with the knowledge and skills necessary to navigate the complex world of public policy.

“By immersing themselves in the roles of congressional members and policy experts, students gain a deeper appreciation for the democratic process and the multifaceted nature of policymaking. This exercise prepares them for active civic engagement, promoting informed, responsible and participatory citizenship in our democracy.”

Students are placed in either a “red” or “blue” team and judged on their performance by public policy leadership upperclassmen.

The hearing began with a call to order and statement by the senator designated as committee chair, followed by other legislators’ opening statements. Then, policy experts gave witness statements that provided a foundation for a round of questioning from the legislators. The hearing closed with statements from each legislator and chair.

Laurel native John Pickering played secretary of state for Minnesota, which has the highest voter turnout of any state besides the District of Columbia. He enjoyed the process of researching and preparing for the event and feels the experience will help him in the future.

“I always feel like public speaking helps, no matter what you end up doing,” Pickering said. “And also, this event gives a lot of awareness to other people on how our government actually runs.

“That is part of the point of this, which is why we live streamed it and invited people to watch.”

Ella Grace Young, from Trussville, Alabama, credits the event for giving her the confidence to pursue a career in policy.

“This has shown me specifically about what it’s like working on Capitol Hill,” said Young, who played Arizona’s secretary of state. “With public policy, there’s a lot of different types of jobs we could work in, like on the Hill, in a nonprofit or a bureaucratic agency.

“Knowing that I could work on the Hill, being a staffer in a position like this, this has really given me a good idea of what that’s going to look like.”

While many questions were answered that evening, a final question remains: Will the red or blue team win the gavel? Unfortunately, the students must wait a little longer to find out. The department will hold an awards ceremony Tuesday (Dec. 5) where winners will be announced.